The Obligation to Speak Up in the Age of Trump




August 2018

Many in the Jewish world has been fascinated by the internecine discussion on the role of our leaders, from Federations to rabbis, regarding speaking up about Donald Trump. Do Jewish leaders, especially as we approach the High Holidays and are called to have an "accounting of our souls," have a moral, religious or civic obligation to provide leadership and guidance in these challenging times?

For many Jewish organizations Trump and his actions are viewed as a partisan political matter---he has advocates and supporters and naysayers and detractors, nothing out of the ordinary drama and tension of politics in their view (at least as expressed publicly).

That attitude views Trump as within the traditional American political vocabulary---highly partisan but the leader of a Republican regime that Democrats and "liberals/progressives"  naturally, and reflexively, deride. Many Jewish organizations and leaders have decided that the dysfunction and bigotry that has been on display in the Oval Office is simply "politics as usual."

Trump's ostensible support for Israel gives further justification to these leaders to avoid controversy and maintain their silence. Federations are caught between what most of their members perceive as a dangerous president (some 70% of the Jewish community remain affiliated with the Democrats and reject Trump) while a vocal minority views Trump as a leader worthy of support and, perhaps more importantly, a vessel of pro-Israel policy (about 25%). 

Either the Trump supporters are enormously, and disproportionately, generous to Federations and thus hold sway in enforcing omerta, or Federation leaders can't read polls.

Rabbis, the spiritual leaders of the community, have similarly been caught in a bind. Many have traditionally adopted self-protective policies of avoiding "partisan" political issues. For a clergyman whose congregation contains Republicans, independents and Democrats having an iron clad rule of "no politics from the pulpit" cushions them from pressures that could be divisive, destabilizing and even explosive.

The dilemma that both Federations and rabbis face is deciding whether Trump is so out of the ordinary that the normal rules of neutrality and the pareve avoidance of taking a stand remain acceptable courses of (in)action. Is Trump so extraordinarily different that the failure to speak out is an abdication of leadership and the silent acquiescence to a threat to the functioning of our democracy?

For many observers of the American scene that question has been asked and answered---Trump is sui generis and dangerous. The New Yorker's David Remnick last week wrote:

It should serve as a warning to Americans in the era of Donald Trump about the fragility of principles and institutions, particularly when those principles and institutions are under attack by a leader who was ostensibly elected to protect them.

.... Trump's rages...are part of a concerted effort to undermine precepts of American constitutionalism and to cast his lot with the illiberal and authoritarian movements now on the rise around the world.

...His targets include immigrants, African-Americans, Latinos, women, Muslims, judges, environmentalists, and any person--foreign or domestic--who dares to question him.

As a lawyer who has spent over forty years in the civil rights field (twenty-seven as the counsel and director of the Anti-Defamation League in Los Angeles) I have no hesitation in echoing Remnick's analysis of the unique danger presented by Trump.

He is as dangerous a threat to the security of the Jewish community, other minority groups and our democracy as any overt, blaring anti-Semite or racist that has emerged in the United States over the past half century.

For decades, I was a "fact-finder" (i.e. I closely monitored the activities of extremists of the right and left) studying and intimately knowing the machinations of the David Dukes, the Gerald L. K Smiths, the Tom Metzgers, the Richard Butlers, the Aryan Nations, the Posse Comitatus, the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, the Louis Farrakhan, the Organization of Arab Students, and countless other extremists.

They were irritants---occasionally dangerous and threatening---but they spoke in a confined echo chamber. Their reach and impact were severely limited by society's overwhelming rejection of their divisive, hateful messages and, most importantly, the fact that American political leadership and establishment voices---whether Jimmy Carter, Gerald Ford, or Ronald Reagan, the George Bushes or Bill Clinton or Barack Obama---openly, unambiguously and frequently condemned their appeals to bigotry.

While there were the occasional, temporary violations of norms (e.g. Willie Horton ads), there never was a leader who would avoid condemning the rhetoric of division or the bigots who made overt appeals to bigotry. For decades, poll after poll revealed the increasing acceptance of norms of tolerance and civility and the valuing of diversity and our leaders mirrored those views. Extremists were rejected and ostracized. No politician who valued their office dared to consort with, or in any way excuse or justify, bigots.

Unfortunately, in the age of instant and constant news, many now assume that if someone isn't wearing a hood and sheet, spewing racial invective or otherwise engaging in vulgar and overt bigotry they are less of a threat. In fact, a suit and tie and the trappings of power simply mask bigotry---the absence of shrill invective does not lessen the danger or threat----it heightens them through misdirection.

Trump's rhetoric of division, his manifest racism and targeting of minorities, his rejection of argumentation based on facts and data and his dismissive abandonment of reason are the very tools that bigots have used and are using to persuade the disgruntled and the unhappy. He blatantly erodes the norms that our society in general, and in particular minorities, have relied on to protect those who are different. We all become the easy targets of calumnies and conspiracy theories when there is no appeal to reason and rationality.

No president in living memory has come close to having the corrosive impact of Trump on our historic norms of inter-group relations. He promotes (indeed he seems to relish) division, rancor, provoking tension, hate and even violence.  

As Admiral William McRaven wrote to Trump last week, "Through your actions, you have embarrassed us in the eyes of our children, humiliated us on the world stage and, worst of all, divided us as a nation."

There is no viable argument that the era of Trump is "politics as usual." In real time he undermines the protections that have kept Jews and other minorities safe in America for decades. 

This is the moment, the High Holidays are the time, when Jewish leaders must look into their souls (cheshbon ha'nefesh) and decide what they are about. Do the outliers who admire Trump call the shots and veto our leaders' speaking out for decency and American and Jewish security? Or, do our leaders follow what is manifestly the proper, moral and correct course---condemn this president for the clear and present danger he is to our nation and our community.